Caribou of Denali National Park

Caribou, Denali NP, Alaska

The great state of Alaska boasts a healthy population of caribou. During a visit to Denali National Park in central Alaska, we saw caribou several times.

 

A large ruminant mammal in the deer family, Rangifer tarandus are the North American species; they occupy a substantial range in Alaska and Canada (see maps below).

 

Denali NP, Alaska

Equipped with large antlers for shoveling snow and specialized nasal passages that warm incoming frigid air, this mammal lives in the coldest areas of North America.

 

Upon first setting eyes on the caribou, it is the antlers that command your attention–an impressive rack. The caribou shed the rack very year, so the Denali Visitor Center had discarded racks out for viewing; they were so heavy I could barely pick up one by myself.

 

In this species, unlike all the other mammals in the deer family, both genders grow antlers.

 

Other interesting facts about the Denali caribou:

  • Their color varies, the coat changing with the seasons
  • Their coat consists of two layers, for thorough insulation
  • Size: 4′ tall at shoulder (1.22 m); 8′ in length (2.5 m)
  • Weight: Bulls 350-400 lbs (159-182 kg); Cows 175-225 lbs (80-120 kg)
  • They migrate in large herds, usually through adverse conditions

 

Denali NP

 

Denali herd info here

and

Wikipedia overview here. 

 

We occasionally came upon them while hiking, and although their size is intimidating, the caribou are gentle animals. We let them graze, and they let us marvel at their beauty and strength.

 

Some caribou subspecies have gone extinct or are diminishing for various reasons. In America, for example, it is very rare to see a caribou unless you go to Alaska.

 

According to Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, there are 32 herds in Alaska/Canada, estimating 950,000 individuals.

 

In Denali National Park, the 2013 census count recorded 2,230 caribou. In the park they are, in general, protected.

 

Other parts of Alaska, however, allow regulated hunting and harvesting of caribou.

Denali Alaska

While caribou live in many parts of the world, we call them different names depending on where one lives. In the U.S., this mammal is called a caribou; unless they are domesticated, in which case they are called reindeer. In Europe, caribou are called reindeer.

 

Whatever you call them, they are a strikingly beautiful mammal with a hardy lifestyle and elegant antlers.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

North America Caribou Range Map, courtesy Feldhamer, Thompson, Chapman; Wild Mammals of North America

 

World Caribou/Reindeer Range Map, Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Nesting House Wrens

House Wren

House wrens are a small bird, abundant in the Americas, with a divine melodious song and elegant markings. They have numerous loveable aspects, but what is endlessly amusing and curious are the many places they choose to nest.

 

Since they are unable to dig their own cavity, they take up residence in all sorts of places.

 

Last week, while visiting Wisconsin, we found a pair of house wrens nesting in the base of an old basketball hoop.

 

Athena found the nest while photographing other birds, many of whom had nesting activity in my cousin’s rural yard. The bluebirds were tirelessly feeding their chicks, the barn swallows were doing the same; both in conspicuous nest boxes and easy to see.

 

Contrastingly, the house wren was quietly perched near an old rusty basketball post. Only one blade of dried grass could be seen. But every few minutes this clever bird would vanish under the rusty dome.

 

House wren with nest

House wrens are known for their creative nests. Small birds less than five inches (13 cm) long, they squeeze their little bodies and build a nest in some of the oddest places–old boots, abandoned cars, traffic lights.

 

A contemporary of John James Audubon wrote he found the house wren in “…olive jars, boxes, and … the hollow of trees.”

 

Audubon, too, found the house wren entertaining and “extremely pleasing.” He dedicated a drawing in his famous book to the house wren. Plate 83 in Birds of America, published 1827-1838, depicts Troglodytes aedon nesting in an old hat.

House Wren drawing by John James Audubon. Plate 83. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Audubon’s house wren observations here.

 

This common songbird can be found throughout the Americas, from central Canada down to the southern tip of South America. See map below.

 

They have many predators (cats, rats, squirrels, owls, and more), but regardless of their vulnerability and diminutive size, house wrens are the most widely distributed bird in the Americas. They often brood two clutches (group of eggs) in a season, and lay from 3-10 eggs per clutch.  More info here. 

 

See the grass tucked up under the rusty dome?

A resourceful bird with a heavenly voice, the house wren has been building nests and breeding for centuries, lighting up the surprised faces of humans, and filling the air with sweet music.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kingfishers of the World

Azure Kingfisher, Australia

A bird widely distributed across the world today, the kingfisher inhabits almost every continent (map below). This successful and thriving species has fossils that date back 30-40 million years.

Forest Kingfisher, Australia

 

Contrary to their name, not all kingfishers catch and eat fish; some species prefer frogs, snakes, worms, and more. Wikipedia overview.

 

Green Kingfisher (female), Belize

 

Though sources differ, there are approximately 100 species of kingfishers. Largely tropical birds, the majority inhabit the Old World tropics and Australasia.

 

The species we see most in North America is the belted kingfisher,.   In Europe, the kingfisher most commonly seen is appropriately called: common kingfisher. There are 10 species in Australia, 18 in Africa.

 

Whenever I am walking around a lake or river and hear the characteristic ratcheting of the belted kingfisher, whatever I am doing, I look up and search for this avian friend.

 

Australia, Kakadu Nat’l. Park

Kingfishers have a disproportionately large head and long, pointy bill; with short legs and stubby tails. They range in size from 3.9 inches long (10 cm) (African dwarf kingfisher) to 18 inches (45 cm) (giant kingfisher).

 

Giant Kingfisher, Botswana

When you come across a kingfisher, they are often perched on a branch, scanning the ground or water below. One of the easier birds to spot, they have bright colors, a distinct shape, and a predictable behavior.

 

Kingfishers have excellent vision, including binocular and color; and are able to recognize water reflection and depth. Some species have eye membranes for water protection. The pied kingfisher, for example, has a bony plate that slides across the eye on water impact.

 

Pied Kingfisher, Botswana

 

Blue-winged Kookaburra with frog in mouth, Australia

 

Little Kingfisher, Australia

Once the kingfisher spots the prey, they swoop down and snatch it, return to the perch. Holding the prey in their strong bill, they beat it against the limb, breaking it down to a sizeable portion for consumption.

 

Sometimes kingfishers will hover above water and dive in for fish.

Green Kingfisher (male), Belize

 

A kingfisher discussion would not be complete without mentioning the laughing kookaburra. Although this kingfisher lives primarily in Australia, many of us all over the world have heard of it, from the song. “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree….”

 

Laughing Kookaburra, Australia

You can hear the great old children’s song, written by an Australian music teacher in 1934, here: the song

 

The real-life sound of a laughing kookaburra is truly wonderful. When I first heard it in a park in Sydney, it startled me.

 

Loud and cackling, it sounds nothing like laughter. You might think it was a monkey (or a wild beast) if you didn’t know better. Kookaburra call. 

Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Zambia

With a variety of specialized hunting skills, successful worldly range, and striking  colors, this bird is one that many of us have been celebrating our whole life.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Kingfisher range. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

Fighting Fire in San Francisco

The San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906 claimed over 3,000 lives. Even the fire chief, Dennis T. Sullivan, was fatally wounded that day when the chimney of a neighboring building collapsed on him.

 

The earthquake and subsequent fires, though devastating, shaped the city for future safety and fire prevention.

 

That day, 90% of the destruction occurred after the initial 7.8 earthquake, in fires. There were over 30 fires, destroying approximately 25,000 buildings on 490 city blocks.  Complicated by ruptured water mains and quaking disasters all over the Bay Area, the city’s conflagration lasted three days, levelled 80% of the city.

 

Wikipedia 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

 

The hydrant that saved a neighborhood in 1906

Over a century has passed since then, and residents are often assured there will never be anything so catastrophic again. An annual celebration of the survival of the city occurs every April 18 at 5:12 a.m., the time the 1906 earthquake hit.

 

A post I wrote last year about the celebration: Celebrating Survival. 

 

Protective laws and regulations, neighborhood preparedness, and numerous preventative systems are in place.

 

If you drive around San Francisco, for example, every once in awhile you will find an intersection with a large circle made of bricks. There are 177 of them. Measuring 32 feet (9.75M) in diameter, the circle indicates there is a huge underground concrete vault filled with 75,000 gallons (284,000 L) of water; reserved for any emergency.  (Photo at end.)

 

 

San Francisco Painted Ladies

With neighborhood houses typically built abutting each other, in a region that only gets rainfall during half the year (if that), this city relies heavily on their fire department.

 

San Francisco is only 47 square miles in size, yet it has 51 neighborhood fire stations. SFFD Wikipedia info. 

Fireboat

 

I researched residential fires in San Francisco for my recently published mystery novel. I learned a lot about the devastation of fire. I visited fire stations, peered in, took notes, talked to firefighters.

First fire engine built in Calif., from 1855. Courtesy SFFD.

One day I visited San Francisco’s Fire Museum. It is a small add-on section to a busy fire station, located in the Pacific Hts. neighborhood. Museum info here.

 

That day they were getting ready for a public event, and the station was lively with firefighters moving fire trucks, preparing the space for visitors.

 

 

The glass case displays were loaded with memorabilia, old equipment and hoses, and old photos. There were numerous old trucks, shiny and in mint condition.

 

About a dozen people were moving a big old truck, and as they did, they proudly reminisced about using that truck to help in “the Loma Prieta” (large 1989 earthquake) when all the newer trucks were out fighting fires.

 

I stood on the sideline, intrigued by it all, staying out of the way. They talked in a language that was filled with codes and details of which I was unfamiliar. They moved with swiftness and strength, and worked together in comradery and unity.

 

I have more respect than ever for firefighters. They carry a heavy responsibility, these warriors of fire; and they do so with grace and pride.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified

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This intersection has an underground water vault. Photo: Travis Grathwell, localwiki.org

 

Jackrabbit Joy

Jackrabbit

Every morning the jackrabbit comes to visit. There are many remarkable aspects to a jackrabbit, but the one I like most is not in any of the research.

 

Technically the jackrabbit is not a rabbit, they’re a hare. Our northern California species, black-tailed jackrabbit, Lepus californicus, is the most widely distributed jackrabbit in North America (map below).

 

They like open grasslands and the chaparral terrain of the western U.S. and Mexico; and stay here year-round, eating grass and other ground plants. I’ve read they are nocturnal animals, but I see my visitor every morning; our critter cam captures them here day and night.

 

Unlike rabbits, hares have their young in a shallow depression, not burrows; and when hare babies (leverets) are born, they are in full fur, not furless like baby rabbits. One or two days after birth, hares are independent. Wikipedia info.

With many predators (fox, coyote, bobcat, and mountain lion to name a few), the jackrabbit is all about speed. Their quickness is attributed to the powerful rear legs. They can reach speeds of up to 40 mph (64 kph).

 

When I come upon one while driving on the narrow back roads, I know it might be awhile before he or she gets off the road. They run in a zig-zag pattern, to distract and divert their predator. Unfortunately they think the car is a predator. So they run and run, zig-zagging along the one-lane road, and we go like this for several minutes before he finally ducks into the brush.

 

My favorite thing about the jackrabbits are their long ears–they twitch and move with every sound; constantly assessing the danger.

 

Sometimes the jackrabbit goes into a torpor, a sort of sleep with eyes open; they just sit upright and take a half-snooze, look wide awake. How can I tell they’re asleep when the eyes are open? The ears aren’t twitching.

Checking out the water source

It’s the hare’s long ears that gave them the confusing name of jackrabbit. Mark Twain said, in Roughing It, “…[the jackass rabbit] has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but the jackass.” Sometime after this publication in 1872, the term “jackass rabbit” shortened to “jackrabbit.”

 

With all these curious features and talents, there is one more thing I find truly wonderful about the jackrabbit.

 

When the sunshine is behind this soft, furry speedster, and he is still for a moment, those glorious pink ears light up, glowing with rosy life, revealing vulnerability and vitality too.

Drinking water

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander and critter cam

Black-tailed jackrabbit, Lepus californicus, range. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

Postcards of America

On this Memorial Day weekend, I share with you some of the beauty of America.

Dairy Farm, Mayville, Wisconsin

 

Jackson Lake, Grand Tetons, Wyoming

 

Little Cowboy, Rodeo, Grover, Colorado

 

Cows, Wildflowers, Carrizo Plains, California

 

Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC

 

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, Wyoming

 

Joshua Tree National Park, California

 

Pronghorn, Great Basin, Nevada

 

Moose in Aspen Grove, Alaska

 

Mt. Rainier, Washington

 

Black Oystercatcher, California coast

 

Haleakala Crater, Maui, Hawaii

 

Grizzly Bear, Denali National Park, Alaska

 

Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

 

Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin

 

Texas Longhorn

 

Nene, Kauai, Hawaii

 

Snow geese, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, California

 

Space Needle, Seattle, Washington

 

Lava beach, Honaunau Bay, Big Island, Hawaii

 

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

 

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Chromatic Pool, Yellowstone, Wyoming

 

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

 

Denali, Alaska

 

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

Big Horn Sheep, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

 

Anise Swallowtail Caterpillar, California

 

Wood Duck, male, Calif.

 

Roadrunner, California

 

 

Bobcat, Point Reyes, California

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

Maui, Hawaii

 

Big Sur, California

 

 

Redwood Forest, Humboldt County, California

 

Cypress Swamp, Jesse Jones Park, Houston, Texas

 

Alligator, Sanibel Island, Florida

 

Olympic Peninsula, Washington

 

All photos by Athena Alexander

 

Let the Nesting Begin

Western Bluebird (male)

I’m always on the look-out for bird nests at this time of year. They’re all over, you just have to be in tune–the country or city, trees or eaves.

 

So far we have found five nests on our property: bushtits, violet-green swallows, western bluebirds, oak titmice, and pacific-slope flycatchers.

Bushtit

It takes some time to find a bird nest; it should, that’s the nature of a nest. How crafty the adult is at hiding the nest, and then keeping it a secret, is directly contingent upon the survival of the young, and ultimately the success of the species.

 

For the bushtits, it was a treasure hunt. One day I noticed they were a pair. Gregarious birds, they are always in flocks of about a dozen, except in spring when they pair off for breeding.

 

After that, I started noticing they were nearby several times a day, not just their once-a-day fly-through. Then I watched with binoculars and saw one had caught a worm and instead of gobbling it up, the bird carried it off.

 

Soon after, we followed the little fluffball as it disappeared into a manzanita bush. Bingo — we found a pocket of lichen in the center of the bush. You can see how hidden it is.

Bushtit nest (in center)

 

If you’re interested in attracting nesting birds, there are many things you can do, especially providing: food, water, shelter, safety. The main thing: be attentive.

Violet-green swallow on nest box

Info about nest boxes:

National Wildlife Federation, Nesting, U.S.

Nestbox Info and Books, England

 

As for finding nests, start watching bird behavior and you’ll be amazed how busy they are.

How to Nest Watch

How to Find a Nest, Canada

 

Good book (U.S.) with bird nest specifics: Peterson Field Guides, Birds’ Nests

 

This year and last, our neighbors lamented there were no more swallows in the area. What happened to the swallows? they said.

 

I grinned. We have them swooping overhead, all day every day, from March to June.

 

Here’s a previously written post about their nesting: Violet-green Swallows.

 

Every spring the violet-green swallows and  western bluebirds have a few weeks of territorial chest-thumping before they choose their respective houses.

 

Bluebird at nest box

 

The oak titmouse is always “our” very first songbird to nest. This year they found a cozy spot inside an old tree snag.

Oak Titmouse

It is for this reason that we keep some dead trees standing–they are a wealth of life regardless of how dead they look.

 

Oak Titmouse Nest Site (round hole toward top of snag)

The pacific-slope flycatchers migrate up every spring from Mexico. We have hosted so many generations of this bird that I could write their family tree.

 

A post I wrote about them: Generations of Flycatchers.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher on nest. Nest materials are same debris as on roof.

Many people don’t have big yards to provide nest spots. I like this story from fellow-blogger Helen at Tiny Lessons Blog. She helped engage the community in providing a new nesting place for the osprey at her local salt marsh: the fundraising efforts and the new nest.

 

What a wonderful thing to live where birds continue to reproduce. And there are so many ways to view the chicks, whether it’s in your yard, a community park, or from your computer via live cams.

 

It’s a sweet reminder of the joy of life.

 

Parent Pacific-slope Flycatcher with a lot to sing about

Photo credit: Athena Alexander